By Paul Kennedy
So MLS commissioner Don Garber
right. It's not personal between him and Jurgen Klinsmann
. It's the entire MLS against Klinsmann, or so it seems.
On Friday, Jeff Carlisle
at ESPN FC reported
Garber's tirade on a media conference call a month ago wasn't just directed at Klinsmann for his comments expressing disappointment with the decision of Clint
and Michael Bradley
to return home to MLS at the peak of their careers. MLS owners are furious with Klinsmann and his staff for advising youth
national team players to consider bypassing MLS for Europe.
As Seattle Sounders general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer
put it, it's hard
enough for MLS clubs to compete with foreign clubs seeking to poach their academy players -- just last week it was reported Manchester United had signed 17-year-old Canadian Josh Doughty
from RSL AZ -- without having the national team coach pushing them to sign with a foreign club. Few MLS owners have been around American soccer as long as Hanauer, who
suggested that he and his MLS partners will have to "reconsider their investment in youth development" if Klinsmann doesn't stop pushing players abroad.
Klinsmann's intentions aren't
evil. He isn't suggesting that every player move to Europe. "Some kids would benefit from the environment in Europe," Klinsmann said in a statement a U.S. Soccer spokesperson provided to ESPN FC,
"while others are best suited to continue their growth in MLS." But the idea of a national team coach suggesting that young players move abroad and getting away with it would be unimaginable in any
major soccer nation.
But Hanauer's threat raises a question. MLS clubs are investing in youth development for what? Sure, the academy and affiliate programs clubs have developed are
important commercial ventures, fostering community relations and building the next generation of fans, but these development programs have had for the most part little impact on their competitiveness
of their first teams. Given MLS roster rules -- eight foreign players per club and unlimited green-card holders -- teams can more efficiently (and cheaply) remain competitive by bringing in
experienced pros from abroad than relying on their academy program to produce first-team players. New York and Portland, the 2013 regular-season conference champions, never started more than a couple
of USA-eligible Americans. Just three Homegrown players -- one each from the LA Galaxy, New England Revolution and Sounders -- should be starting in the 2014 MLS conference finals that begin next
Sunday. After this year's SuperDraft, the general manager of an MLS club with one of the better known academy programs stated to me he didn't have an academy player who would make his first team 18 in
the next five years.
That isn't to say MLS clubs have been dissuaded from investing in player development. Just the opposite, the irritation of MLS owners to Klinsmann's stance stems from
the fact that they are having to double down on player development. The advent of MLS second teams -- the Galaxy's Los Dos and their copy cats popping up in USL PRO -- may be the most significant move
in player development in the history of American soccer. It's another nail in the coffin for college soccer as MLS clubs finally have a place to park their Homegrown players -- not to mention test out
their academy players in a meaningful way, offering them an extended tryout.
All this comes as the fight for American talent intensifies at younger and younger ages. For years, hockey
players ages 14 and 15 have had to choose between pro and college paths, choosing between Junior A hockey, viewed as professional by the NCAA, and other circuits the NCAA deemed amateur. It should be
viewed as a sign of the growing maturity of American soccer that players 14 and 15 are having to make the same decisions, but not just choosing between the pros and college, but MLS and Europe or
The problem for MLS clubs is that the bargaining table is tilted against them. For all the talk about the lack of free agency within single-entity MLS for players at the end of
their contracts, the lack of free agency for teens seeking to turn pro is a huge disadvantage for MLS clubs. Given the choice between one club from Column A -- the club that holds his Homegrown rights
in the case of a player in an MLS academy program or the club that holds SuperDraft rights for a player who otherwise signs with MLS -- and an infinite number of foreign clubs from Column B -- all
willing to sweet talk him into moving in with them -- it's easy to see why a player is pushed abroad.
The current U.S. under-17 national team Richie
is working with is arguably the most talented group to come along since the Landon Donovan
-led team took fourth place at the 1999 Under-17 World
Cup in New Zealand. That group included five future World Cup players, only one of whom started out playing abroad: Donovan, who bailed on Bayer Leverkusen after a year. DaMarcus Beasley
and Bobby Convey
both played in MLS before moving to Europe, Kyle Beckerman
has stayed in
MLS his entire career, and Oguchi Onyewu
started out in college at Clemson before moving to Metz in France.
The scary proposition is that this
exceptional generation Williams has coming through the pipeline could all be gone to Europe or Mexico before MLS knew what happened. MLS owners reworked their rules so Dempsey and Bradley could return
home. They must put in place rules so that the American Lionel Messi
who will be coming along sooner rather than later doesn't get away like Williams' young
phenoms in Bradenton have.